Should journalists call Jose Antonio Vargas an illegal immigrant or an undocumented one?

Discussions about how to refer to an immigrant who isn’t authorized to live in the U.S. have popped up periodically in newsrooms. But Vargas’ recent New York Times essay -- and his stature as high-profile, Pulitzer-winning journalist -- has thrust the media into a bigger role in the debate.

In his essay, Vargas refers to himself as an undocumented immigrant. In a tweet last week, he noted that many people were tweeting about the controversial essay with the hashtag #undocumented immigrant. “Undocumented immigrant is trending,” he tweeted from his @joseiswriting handle. “So let’s drop ‘illegal’ and ‘alien.’” No person is illegal or an alien.”

Increasingly, immigration advocates are questioning the media’s language usage. Last fall, Colorlines, an online magazine that covers racial justice issues, launched a campaign called “Drop the I-Word.” Supporters are asked to urge media outlets to use “undocumented” rather than "illegal."

Independent of the campaign, publications such as the San Antonio News-Express in Texas and the Monterey County Herald in California have made changes, and others are considering doing the same.

Many mainstream media outlets use “illegal,” following Associated Press style. AP’s Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn told me via email that “undocumented” isn’t used because the term “implies that the issue is more one of paperwork than the legal right to be in the country.”

The AP Stylebook also states that “illegal alien” and “illegal” as nouns should be avoided. Minthorn said that the AP adopted its entry in 2004 after “considerable discussion on adopting neutral terminology to describe this situation.”

The New York Times also uses “illegal immigrant.” Vargas was allowed leeway to use “undocumented” because he was writing a first-person piece, said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times spokeswoman.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, however, would like more media outlets to re-evaluate their style. The group’s resource guide says that the term "illegal" is often used as a pejorative. Calling immigrants “illegal” also unfairly criminalizes them, according to an NAHJ statement. Being in this country without authorization is not a crime; it’s a civil violation.

Last fall, it was language usage -- not just content -- that roused readers when the Fresno Bee published a seven-part series about the hypocrisies in the immigration policies and the farming economy of California’s Central Valley. Many readers protested the paper’s use of the term “illegal immigrant.” An English professor at Fresno City College, for instance, started a Facebook group asking people to boycott the paper during the series.

The Bee decided to continue using the term “illegal.” The paper believes it’s the “best option, but recognize that others disagree for various reasons,” Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye said in a story the Bee published about the controversy.

Claudia Melendez Salinas, an education reporter at the Monterey County Herald, pushed her newspaper to change its style to “undocumented immigrant.” The change was made in 2008, and staffers have been reminded when the term “illegal immigrant” slips into paper, Melendez said via email.

Melendez said that publications should change style when words describing a group have become outdated or inappropriate. Newspapers had previously used the N-word, she pointed out.

“I told them 'illegal' was offensive and compared it to other offensive labels like 'spic,' Melendez said of her talk with editors. “That’s how people use it, if you think about it.”

The San Antonio Express-News changed its style to “unauthorized immigrant” -- a compromise decision. “It doesn’t have the bite of illegal immigrant or illegal alien ... but it doesn’t have the sanitizing effect of ‘undocumented,’ which implies that said immigrant just misplaced his papers,” Public Editor Bob Richter wrote last year in a column about the change.

Recently, the San Diego Union-Tribune decided to re-evaluate its usage of “illegal immigrant.” Editor Jeff Light said the issue had been brought up last month by the publication’s Latino community advisory board, which works with the newsroom on staff development, coverage issues and Spanish-language products. Light has asked a few reporters to see how other news outlets are handling it.

“I am interested in discussing whether we should change it,” he said via email. “I have no idea whether we will or not at this point.”

Whatever is decided, the debate is a reminder of the power of words and the implications they can have for journalists, readers and sources.

Which term does your newsroom use, and why?